Understanding the Current Future of the AAA

The AAA’s section assembly recently called on a set of advisors (principally editors of section journals) to write memos to the Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publishing (CFPEP) that would make recommendations about the future of publishing in the AAA. As is the way of governance, these memos by advisors will go to the section assemblies who will read them and decide whether to make recommendations to the Executive Board who will make a final and official decision which the staff of the AAA will “execute” (I love that word).

I’ve read a handful of these memos, most of which seem to say something like “our section is still alive, so we have no complaints.” This is kind of worrying, since a bunch of memos recommending no action will lead to no action by the Section Assembly, no decisions by the Executive Boards and no executions by the Staff.

One memo stands out though: the one by Kim Fortun, which she wrote as an advisory member and outgoing co-editor of Cultural Anthropology. [Full disclosure: yours truly and the debates on this site are cited several times within. She sent it to me for review, and I’ve posted it here with her permission]. Kim’s memo could be a handbook for understanding the current crisis and politics of scholarly publishing in general, and the promises, fulfilled and unfulfilled, of the AAA’s union with Wiley Blackwell, in particular. It is incredibly detailed, well-sourced, well organized and throughtful–far beyond the call of duty of a memo. I hope all the section assembly advisors get a chance to read it, as well as all the Section Assembly representatives and as much of the membership as possible.

At stake immediately is the question of renewing our contract with Wiley Blackwell, something I personally consider a done deal because of the lock-in and sunk costs of the initial switch. Switching at this point in the state of publishing will just be way too costly, but i’d love to be proven wrong by a really detailed analysis of the costs and practical challenges of switching to something else.

In a more longterm sense, however, at stake is the very definition of what AAA’s roles and duties are vis-a-vis multiple different stakeholders–not only members, but readers, authors, editors, universities, librarians, students, and reviewers. Fortun’s memo outlines responses and ideas communicated with respect to all of these stakeholders.

If you feel at all in sympathy with what Fortun’s memo advises (keep in mind she is acting as an advisor, not a member of the SCA, which will have its own ideas about this), but you are not a member of SCA, then I urge you to communicate your thoughts to the members of your section(s). As I say, it appears from a cursory glance that not all the sections see the same problems, and that might just be because you aren’t talking about it. So forward this post and the memo, and talk it up, please. The current future of the AAA is too bleak, it’s time for a different one.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

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